St. Anne's convent will house homeless families for a week in July

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For the first time in four years, the convent at St. Anne's Catholic Church in Castle Shannon will be occupied, starting in July. The nuns aren't coming back, but their mission of helping others is.

The 124-year-old church will be participating in Family Promise, a national organization that houses and mentors recently homeless families while they get back on their feet.

It works this way: Churches offer space for the 10 to 14 guests currently being served by Family Promise to stay for one week. As hosts, the church provides shelter, meals and company at night. During the day, the guests spend time at a day center in Crafton, where they search for employment and housing, find access to social services and work on skills, such as budgeting and parenting.

Laura Vincenti, executive director of Family Promise of Southwestern Pennsylvania, said the organization accepts only families.

"A lot of times, these people have lost everything when they come to us," Ms. Vincenti said. "But when they leave, they have employment, affordable housing and a lasting support system."

Family Promise has been serving Washington County for 19 years and opened its Pittsburgh division in 2008. The Pittsburgh network of churches did not include any Catholic churches -- until now.

"St. Anne's is stepping up and setting a fine example of a Catholic church doing meaningful community service," Ms. Vincenti said.

July 7-14 is the first week families will stay at St. Anne and, if it goes well, the church will continue to host families once every six weeks.

"Our job as a congregation is to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. This is one of the ways we can do it," said the Rev. Robert Cedolia, St. Anne's pastor.

Parishioner Miriam Manion is organizing the preparation. Volunteers from St. Anne's and First Presbyterian Church in Castle Shannon have signed up to prepare meals and stay overnight during that week. Others donated toiletries, bedding, toys and gift cards for food.

The families will stay in a building equipped with a full kitchen, dining hall and multiple bedrooms. The two-story structure was originally used by the Sisters of Divine Providence, who taught at St. Anne's school. The last four sisters housed there moved out in 2009.

"It needs a good cleaning," Ms. Manion said. "But it's really a good setup. There are more than enough bedrooms and plenty of space for the kids to play."

Parishioners have also expressed an interest in providing the families with more than food and shelter. After a request from a St. Anne's member, the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Green Tree has agreed to interview anyone being helped by Family Promise for positions at the hotel.

"We really have a lot to offer to our team members, including meals during shifts and a great benefits package," said Kelly Hawkins, director of human resources at the hotel. "We want to extend that opportunity to anyone staying at St. Anne's, especially those who might have trouble being hired at another company."

Because the former convent is located at the rear of the St. Anne's campus, it is fewer than 100 yards away from Castle Ridge Apartments, a complex of 112 luxury apartments. Some residents said they are slightly concerned about having the homeless stay in the convent. Matthew Weeldreyer, 28, said the St. Anne's parking lot is already poorly lit at night.

"My wife is a nurse, so she usually runs nearby when she gets off work late at night," Mr. Weeldreyer said. "We're definitely going to be a bit more cautious, just in case."

Mary Geyer, 69, said she isn't worried about safety.

"They're not criminals, they're just people who have fallen on hard times," Ms. Geyer said.

In the St. Anne's community, Ms. Manion said the response as been positive.

"The only real concern has been, 'How are we going to pay for it?' " she said.

But donations from parishioners, the Catholic Men's Fellowship and the St. Vincent de Paul Society has covered most of the expenses.

"It's pretty basic," said Mark Graham, facilitator of the Fellowship. "When there is a person in need, we're called to dig deep and help, whoever that person may be."

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Jessica Contrera: jcontrera@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1458.


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